The Giants’ Ten Greatest Games
October 3, 1951: The Shot Heard ‘Round the World
One of baseball’s legendary home runs capped a remarkable season comeback in historic fashion and would make the name Bobby Thomson sweetly resonate with generations of Giant fans.
Looking down and out in mid-August as they trailed powerhouse rival Brooklyn by 13 games, the Giants awoke and won 37 of their remaining 44 games to tie the Dodgers and force a best-of-three playoff to determine the National League pennant. They won the first game, 3-1, before getting shellacked in the second, 10-0—setting up the winner-take-all at New York’s Polo Grounds.
On a day described as “dank and dreary,” the Giants quickly trailed the Dodgers 1-0 on a first-inning, run-scoring single by Jackie Robinson; 20-game winner Don Newcombe held the lead up for the first six innings, but ran into trouble and allowed the Giants to tie it in the seventh when Thomson’s sacrifice fly brought home Monte Irvin, who had doubled to lead off the frame. The Dodgers quickly—and, it appeared, fatally for the Giants—responded in the eighth with three runs, a rally extended when Thomson couldn’t hang onto a catch behind third base off an Andy Pafko short fly. The 4-1 Brooklyn lead held going into the bottom of the ninth.
With Newcombe trying to wrap it up, Alvin Dark led off with a single. Dodger first baseman Gil Hodges inexplicably held onto Dark—essentially, a meaningless run—rather than maximize their defensive range; sure enough, Don Mueller poked a grounder through the enlarged hole on the right side that might have otherwise been turned into a rally-killing double play. After Newcombe got Irvin to foul out, Whitey Lockman drilled a double that scored Dark and sent Mueller to third—where he badly injured his knee and precipitated a 15-minute delay while he was taken off the field. With the tying run at second, Newcombe was replaced with Ralph Branca, an eight-year Dodger veteran who grew up a big Giants fan. The first batter he faced: Bobby Thomson. The second pitch he threw: Slammed by Thomson down the left-field line, easily clearing the short Polo Grounds porch and sending Giants fans into absolute delirium as the Scottish native famously ended New York’s improbable stretch run with a 5-4 win.
The glory of Thomson’s homer was tarnished in 1999 when, responding to new evidence that the Giants were stealing signs from opponents in 1951, Thomson strangely struggled to answer the simple question: We’re you tipped off on the home run pitch Branca threw? (After quite a few seconds of hesitation, he tautly replied: “My answer is no.”)
September 29, 1954: The Catch
After losing out to the New York Yankees in the World Series after Thomson’s 1951 shot, the Giants returned three years later to take on a Cleveland Indian ballclub that had stormed through the American League campaign with a 111-43 record. Despite a relatively modest 97-57 mark, the Giants were not impressed with what the Tribe had to offer—and they showed why in a Game One highlighted by, not so arguably, the most memorable catch in baseball history.
Vic Wertz gave the Indians the lead in the first inning when he tripled in two runners. It was not the last time the Giants would hear from Wertz; he twice singled in leadoff roles in the fourth and sixth innings, but the Indians couldn’t bring him home. When he returned to bat in the eighth, the situation was quite different, with the first two batters of the inning reaching base ahead of him. New York manager Leo Durocher couldn’t fathom the idea of Giants starting pitcher Sal Maglie facing Wertz one more time, so he replaced him with left-handed spot starter Don Liddle to counter against the left-handed slugging Wertz.
Wertz teed off against Liddle and mashed a monster drive towards the Polo Grounds’ ultra-spacious expanse of center field—and Willie Mays, playing Wertz shallow because the Giants were expecting him to bunt, tore off in what appeared to be an impossible race to catch up with the ball. But scrambling at full speed, he did—making an over-the-shoulder catch in front of the wall, some 450 feet away from home plate; in almost any other major league ballpark of the time, the drive would have cleared the wall for a home run. Mays’ famous catch was crucial enough to quell the Indian uprising, as Cleveland left the bases loaded without scoring to finish their end of the eighth.
Mays’ heroics made those of Dusty Rhodes possible two innings later. An especially effective pinch-hit specialist throughout the year, Rhodes batted for Monte Irvin with two on and one out in the bottom of the tenth inning of a 2-2 game and pulled Bob Lemon’s pitch down the right-field line and over the wall—which at the foul pole measured 260 feet away from home—for a walk-off, three-run blast. Never mind that the flight of Rhodes’ ball was as much as 150 feet shorter than Wertz’s drive against Mays; in the Polo Grounds, it’s not how far you hit it, but where you hit it to. The Giants’ 5-2 win set the tone for an impressive four-game sweep of the Indians, the team’s last New York championship.
November 1, 2010: Torture and Joy
The Giants’ next world title didn’t come for 54 years, when an unlikely, tight-knit “band of misfits” thrived on close, low-scoring battles and finally became the first team based in San Francisco to deliver a championship.
Fueled by the majors’ best pitching staff blessed with a young rotation and a crackerjack bullpen that was virtually untouchable over the season’s final two months, the Giants forged their way into the World Series after taut NL playoff series triumphs over Atlanta and Philadelphia. Many felt they would meet their match in a high-powered Texas team making its first-ever Fall Classic appearance, but San Francisco pitching continued to dominate as the Giants took three of the first four games, two by shutout.
Game Five in Arlington saw a repairing of Game One starters in the Giants’ Tim Lincecum and the Rangers’ Cliff Lee, both of whom were shaky the first time out; things would be different for the rematch. Through six scoreless innings, both aces were in top form as neither team could mount a serious rally. But in the seventh, Lee cracked. The first two Giants reached and then, with two outs, veteran infielder Edgar Renteria—an expensive flop over two years in San Francisco—made Giants fans everywhere forgive him in an instant when he blasted a three-run shot to left-center that just cleared the wall. It was more than enough for Lincecum; he struck out four of the next five batters and kept the Rangers scoreless through eight, giving way in the ninth for flamboyant, outrageously bearded closer Brian Wilson—who deviated from his torturous form of the regular season and retired the Rangers in order to complete the 3-0 victory and give the Giants a championship thrill they had not experienced since moving to California over five decades earlier. The long-overdue triumph ignited a wild, well-behaved celebration that peaked with a San Francisco parade drawing well over a million people; two more parades would follow over the next four years.
September 23, 1908: The Merkle Boner
The Giants were on the wrong end of one of baseball’s most legendary gaffes that, over 100 years later, remains firmly entrenched in the consciousness of baseball fans the world over.
With two weeks to go in the season, New York was hosting the rival Chicago Cubs and entered the bottom of the ninth tied at 1-1. The Giants rallied; Art Devlin singled with one out and Moose McCormick grounded into a force for the second out, but a base hit from 19-year-old Fred Merkle sent McCormick to third as the tying run. When the next batter, Al Birdwell, singled to apparently win the game for the Giants, an excited Merkle prematurely began a celebration by heading straight to his teammates—without making the required trot to second and touching the base. Unfortunately for Merkle and the Giants, not only did Chicago second baseman Johnny Evers catch onto this, so did umpire Hank O’Day, who watched Evers collect a ball—nobody was really sure if it was the same one used in the play, given all the chaos of celebrating players and fans flooding the field. Evers touched second base, and O’Day called Merkle out to nullify the run.
The ensuing controversy became daily headline fodder for the next few weeks; the New York press howled, the Giants protested, Christy Mathewson threatened never to pitch again, and even the Cubs were left unhappy when the game was officially ruled a tie on account of darkness, believing they should have been given a forfeit win because the on-field rush of Giants fans made continuing the game impossible. NL president Harry Pulliam ruled that the game would only be made up if the two teams finished the season tied. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened; the Giants lost that replay, and the NL pennant along with it.
October 16, 1962: Lined to Second Best
Until 2010, San Francisco fans could only dream of a championship moment of their own, suffering for over five decades before finally living the fantasy. They came closest to realizing that dream in the seventh game of a 1962 World Series against the Yankees that still has Giants fans wondering aloud, “What if…”
Through the first six games, the Giants and Yankees waded through numerous rainouts (thanks to an unusually strong early-season California storm) and traded victories with one another before heading into the decisive Game Seven at Candlestick Park. It was a matchup of 20-game winners: Jack Sanford for the Giants and Ralph Terry for the Yankees, both of whom rose to the challenge and expectations with a sharp pitching duel. Only one run scored over the first 8.5 innings—on a double play ball hit by the Yankees’ Tony Kubek that scored Bill Skowron in the fifth inning.
Terry—who allowed Bill Mazeroski’s famous home run two years earlier in Pittsburgh—took a two-hit shutout into the ninth inning determined to even up his World Series luck. But it was the Giants who nearly evened the score first. Pinch-hitter Matty Alou opened the inning with a bunt single; after the next two batters struck out, Willie Mays doubled down the right-field line in what appeared to be a game-tying sequence—but because the turf was still wet from the rains, the ball slowed upon impact and right fielder Roger Maris was able to cut it off before hitting the corner, throwing quickly back to the infield to hold Alou at third. The dangerous Willie McCovey loomed at home plate with equally dangerous Orlando Cepeda on deck, but the Yankees decided to take the unorthodox route: Have the right-handed Terry pitch to left-handed slugger McCovey rather than walk him to load the bases, set up a force at any base and pitch to the right-handed Cepeda.
Alas for the Giants, the Yankee gamble worked—but not without excitement. McCovey first sent a wicked line drive that curled foul; he then lashed another that was quite fair—but also right at Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson, who leaned only slightly downward to collect the smash to secure the third out, end the series and break the hearts of Giants fans.
October 7, 1921: A Late Arrival to the Subway Series
The Giants and their best new rivals who shared the Polo Grounds—the New York Yankees, now led by the Goliath that was Babe Ruth—squared up for the first time in a rare best-of-nine World Series matchup; the expanded set-up was just fine for the Giants, who looked as if they were going to need all nine opportunities to mount a much-needed comeback after being shut out in the first two games of the series by unexpectedly brilliant Yankee pitching. When the Giants fell behind 4-0 in the middle of the third inning in Game Three, serious desperation began to set in.
The Giants answered back, and then some. They scored four times in the bottom of the third—two of them on bases-loaded walks by Yankee starter Bob Shawkey, removed halfway through the frame—and then unloaded in the seventh off Jack Quinn and two other relievers, scoring eight runs on eight hits, including a double and triple from Ross Youngs, to let the Yankees know that the offense had definitely been roused into action after two previous games of deep sleep. The Giants added one more run in the eighth and finished the 13-5 carnage on 20 hits, a series record that would last for 80 years. More importantly, the Giants’ win was the turning point in the series; taking advantage of an ailing Ruth (badly handicapped by a bum elbow), they won four of the next five games and took baseball’s first Subway Series in eight, giving the Giants their first of two straight world titles after suffering defeat in their four previous visits to the Fall Classic.
October 7, 2001: The Inflated Record
For years, Roger Maris’ season home run record remained untouched as the few challengers wilted well short of 61. Then Mark McGwire obliterated the mark in 1998 with an almost unimaginable 70, and many believed that the new standard would stick around for a long time to come, even despite the reign of super-powered sluggers pumping up the offense in the 1990s and early 2000s. But it only took three years for a successful new contender to come along: Barry Bonds.
The all-world Bonds had never been a big-time home run guy; he had set a career high just a year earlier with 49 when he entered the 2001 season on a warpath towards McGwire. By mid-July he had already set a record for the most home runs (39) at the All-Star break, and his momentum continued unabated from there; on October 4 he tied McGwire’s 70 in Houston, and hit two a day later against Los Angeles back home to break the record.
After mostly sitting out the next day, Bonds returned for the season finale against the Dodgers—the end of a three-game series originally scheduled for mid-September before the 9-11 attacks shut down baseball for a week—and wasted no time capping his historic achievement, launching a first-inning home run, his 73rd, off knuckleballer Dennis Springer. The homer fell short of the mass of kayaks and other boats literally clogging McCovey Cove beyond Pac Bell Park, hoping for a chance of collecting a highly prized collectable. Instead, it landed amid a frenzied mob of fans hanging out in the ballpark’s promenade behind the right-field bleachers; ownership of the ball came into dispute when one fan accused another of stealing, and by the time they agreed to sell the ball together, the selling price wasn’t enough to cover their legal fees from the lawsuits filed against one another.
Bonds would later single and fly out twice as the Giants edged the Dodgers, 2-1; the record reset, it has yet to be approached as the game gradually became more pitcher-friendly in the wake of the onset of performance enhancement enforcement to curb illegal steroid use—a culture headlined by the likes of guilty players such as McGwire and, later, Bonds himself.
April 15, 1958: Welcome to San Fran
For years a bastion of minor league baseball that counted among its ranks players like Joe DiMaggio, Lefty O’Doul and Earl Averill, San Francisco finally witnessed the big time by hosting the first-ever major league game on the West Coast—the first even west of Kansas City—as the transplanted Giants hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers, who also fled New York for the greener pastures (both topographically and financially) of California.
A sunny afternoon blessed a capacity crowd at 23,000-seat Seals Stadium, a stopgap facility prior to the opening of Candlestick Park two years later, as Giants right-hander Ruben Gomez opened the game with a strikeout of Gino Cimoli; it would be the first of six K’s on the day for Gomez, scattering six hits and six walks for what would be his first and only shutout of the 1958 season. Gomez’s Dodger counterpart, Don Drysdale, had it rougher; after retiring the first six Giants batters, the Los Angeles native walked into trouble in the second as two baserunners he walked to lead off the inning both scored—and in the fourth, the roof caved in as four Giants tallied, including the first San Francisco Giants home run as hit by Daryl Spencer. In the fifth, Orlando Cepeda—one of three Giants, along with Jim Davenport and Willie Kirkland, playing in their first major league contest—hit a solo homer for his first hit that increased the lead to 7-0. The Giants added one more run in the seventh, Gomez finished his shutout and the Giants were off and running in the City by the Bay.
September 30, 1916: The Height of Streaking Madness
The Giants’ topsy-turvy 1916 season likely gave manager John McGraw more gray hairs than any other of his 31 years managing in New York. They stumbled out to a 2-13 start playing mostly at home, then went on the road and won 17 straight. When the Giants sank back below .500 at midseason, a fed-up McGraw cleaned house, trading away long-time Giants stars Larry Doyle, Fred Merkle and, most stunningly of all, legendary ace Christy Mathewson, who was beginning to fade at age 36. The deals, which brought to New York third baseman Heinie Zimmerman, second baseman Buck Herzog and pitcher Slim Sallee, would pay immediate dividends as the Giants in September embarked on another long, “unbeaten” streak—this time, exclusively at home—that did include a tie but nevertheless ran itself to 25 games when New York played its final home games of the year with a doubleheader against the Boston Braves.
In the first game, Giants starter Rube Benton exchanged zeroes for six innings with the Braves’ Dick Rudolph as the Polo Grounds crowd of 40,000—a figure far exceeding those across town in Brooklyn, where the Robins were bearing down on a rare pennant—were rabid with excitement in hopes of seeing the streak extended. They got their wish. The Giants broke up the scoreless tie in the seventh with two runs, then added two more in the eighth to build their lead to 4-0. A half-inning later, Benton finished the shutout—the Giants’ third straight and their tenth during their improbable run. The 26-game winning streak would be the longest ever in the majors, and it would end in the nightcap as the Braves’ bats finally awoke and defeated the Giants, 8-3. Yet the streak showed that the die had been cast on a Giants roster that regenerated during the season and, a year later, would win the NL pennant.
July 2, 1963: A Marathon Duel
Pitching count limits have become a major consideration for major league managers, and that’s why you’ll never again see a game like the one fought between the Giants’ Juan Marichal and the Milwaukee Braves’ Warren Spahn on a summer evening at Candlestick Park before 16,000 fans.
The starting lineup featured five future Hall-of-Fame hitters: Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews. But Marichal and Spahn, themselves future Cooperstown members, mowed them and the more mortal components of the lineup down like spring training rejects. The closest either team came to scoring occurred in the Braves’ fourth when Norm Larker was thrown out at home on a single by Del Crandall. The game remained scoreless after nine innings, but neither pitcher was ready to leave—especially Marichal, who in his last outing was so incensed at being taken out of a tie game that he refused to talk to reporters afterward.
The game rolled well into extra innings. Marichal at one point retired 16 straight Braves. Spahn, 42 years young, continued to rack up zeroes, surviving a bases-loaded Giants rally in the 14th. Finally, in the 16th inning—four hours and ten minutes after the first pitch had been thrown—Mays broke up the monotony with a one-out home run off Spahn that ended the last marathon pitching duel likely to take place. Why? Because no manager today would allow his starting pitcher to throw over 200 pitches—as Marichal (227) and Spahn (201) both did in this epic.
The Giants’ 1-0 win came three weeks after Marichal threw his only career no-hitter—and 30 years to the day that the Giants’ Carl Hubbell threw an 18-inning shutout.
San Francisco Giants Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the Giants, decade by decade.
The Giants' Ten Greatest Hitters: A list of the ten greatest hitters based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Giants' Ten Greatest Pitchers: A list of the ten greatest pitchers based on their productivity and efficiency.
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